The U.S. could be stuck fighting in Afghanistan for a long time because its army doesn't have the training to connect with the population or understand that country's complicated culture, a senior NATO adviser warns.
Stephen Henthorne says the U.S. army puts too much emphasis on combat while paying lip service to working with civilian agencies and Afghans, and figuring out a plan to establish stability in Afghanistan.
In a letter to President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Henthorne notes that army commanders are well trained in kinetic operations, a term used to describe combat, but don't understand how to successfully use their resources to provide for civilian-military co-operation.
"The real problem is that almost all of these U.S. army generals are 'War Fighters,' " writes Henthorne, an American and the senior adviser to NATO's Civil-Military Co-operation Centre of Excellence in the Netherlands.
The Ottawa Citizen has obtained a copy of the letter he sent to retired Gen. James Jones.
Henthorne, who stressed his comments didn't reflect the views of his employer or NATO's member states, said other countries have had more success in making inroads with the Afghan population.
"The Canadians, the British and the Dutch do better at this because they do listen and they understand the culture," Henthorne said in an interview. "We claim we have tons of culture classes for our soldiers and even for our civilians, but we really don't have a clue. We think one Muslim is just like any other Muslim."
He noted the U.S. "hearts and minds" campaign in Afghanistan is designed only for the short term. True civil-military co-operation is working with civilians in disputed areas, Henthorne added.
The U.S. army provides most of the troops in Afghanistan.
For Americans, Henthorne said, an overemphasis on combat means "we'll be spending a lot of time, money and resources going back constantly redoing things or we'll be stuck where we don't want to be stuck for long periods of time."
Henthorne said U.S. operations, such as eradicating the opium trade, do not take into account the long-term effects on the Afghan population who rely on that harvest for their livelihood.
"We're not just dealing with Taliban. We're dealing with people who need to grow the crops, we're dealing with people who sell them the seed, we're dealing with drug lords who we originally paid to create stability in 2001 and 2002, and we can't wean these people off of this stuff. It is a form of currency ingrained in their everyday life. We're not doing anything realistic about that at all."
The Pentagon is working on designing a civil-military campaign plan for Afghanistan over the next 16 months, but he pointed out that the team consists of one senior public servant and an officer, with little staff or budget. "I really believe that it's doomed to fail and its failure is intentional," he added.
Col. Daniel Roper, director of the U.S. army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Centre, said he hadn't seen Henthorne's letter so he could not comment.
But Roper noted the U.S. military is continually improving its training based on lessons learned from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The military uses sociologists and cultural anthropologists to help it understand local cultures, he added.
Roper noted that since 2001, U.S. military doctrine has changed. There is emphasis on what is called "clear, hold and build," meaning that insurgents are killed off or forced to retreat from a region. After that, U.S. units control the particular area and provide support to local communities.
"The holding and building is where you win," Roper said. "It's no longer offensive and defensive. It's offensive, defensive and stability."
Roper said a counter-insurgency campaign is a long-term undertaking, and that while combat gets noticed, it is much more difficult to perceive subtle changes in attitudes of the local populations since those take place over a lengthier period.
But Roper said there is always room for improvement in the cultural training soldiers receive, and he added that local politics and alliances require time to understand.
"For instance, understanding the politics in Ottawa is not the same as understanding the politics in Toronto," he said. "It requires time to adjust and learn."
Henthorne said dealing with the Afghan population should not be a case of the quantity of what can be provided, but should be more focused on the quality of the aid.
"From the American perspective, we build you a school whether you want one or not," he explained. "You may need something else, but we don't care. If it's on our shopping list to build a school for you and you've only got two kids in the community, you're going to get a two-level school with 18 classrooms and colour TVs and that's just the way it is because it's on our list of things to do today."